Covid Tracking by Phone?

Graphic of a phone in hand and a network of individuals it can reach...the intention is to depict Covid tracking by phone.
Tracking one and many…

Dear Ms Smartphone: Should I start using my phone as a Covid detective, specifically to do Covid tracking by phone? I am not in a high risk group but I attended a busy outdoor rally the other day where people got close and did not wear face masks. Now  I am sorry that I went and I  worry that I might have exposed myself.  Would using my phone might have helped? Rafael, Stinson Beach

Dear Rafael, It’s a timely question and I hope you stay safe.  There are maps online that show hotspots, but they seem to be out of date and not granular enough to reveal specific, local exposure.  Since the ability to track Covid is baked into our smartphones we all need to learn more about it.

Historially, Covid detectors are  groups of investigators, think of them like census workers, who physically track down people  who are exposed to the virus. According to a local newspaper, the trackers compile a list of infected individuals, and then the people who came within six feet of them for at least ten minutes. Google and Apple can do this tracking for us too…but we don’t yet know if it is accurate. Here’s how….

IT’s ON THE MAP!

Most of us run tracing or tracking apps throughout the day. Think of the GPS (global positioning system) that  enables turn by turn navigation or pickups for the rideshare driver. Bluetooth,  a short-range wireless radio, lets you share pictures and files or wirelessly pair music and calls to another device. The standard range is 30 feet. 

Both GPS and Bluetooth are now employed to detect Covid outbreaks, but Bluetooth is the favored method. An algorithm can ‘explore’ if your phone was in proximity to other phones (i.e. people) that concurrently, or later, developed Covid-symptoms. Without causing a public panic, the intention is that public health officials can contact you and tailor notifications.

If your phone had been Bluetooth enabled  at the event you mentioned, you might have gotten a text or email a few days later. Your risk level would depend upon both the proximity and the duration of your exposure- as well as your overall health. UCSF has announced an GPS based tracing program that has people who test positive for the Corona virus download their location histories so that they can recreate the movement data.

Is it Private and Dependable?

Bluetooth was not developed for contact tracing- and the technology gets easily confused (i.e., unreliable) by the most basic interference from windows, walls, and big open spaces. Thus, it can generate false reports for Covid, and miss the big events. The technology was pulled off the shelf because there  were no other digital tracking systems.  But now,  government agencies, from France to Singapore, have developed national tracking. However, local citizens have shunned them and there is conflict from  both Google and Apple over the  transfer of data from phones to centralized servers. 

My Bluetooth Moment

On my own phone, I  keep Bluetooth disabled, because it drains the battery, and I  don’t want to take calls when I drive. I had a classroom ephipany that made me more mindful. I was leading a class, ‘Smartphone 101’,  in the local public library, when students complained that an  older gentleman was sending personal pictures from his iphone . Both the senders and receivers had a default setting that enabled photos on Bluethooth to be “discoverable.” They didn’t know to turn it off. 

So, with a nod to mindfulness, we all  need to become more informed about the features on our phone- they are tools that can deliver good or evil. Both Google and Apple make it extremely clear that they will not use Bluetooth data to tracking Covid data unless users opt-in. However, newer iPhones  no longer require an extra step to download  a separate app. You can find more information in the links (Google) (Apple) and choose whether  to opt in or out.

Prepare Phones if Natural Disaster

“We interrupt our normal column to bring you this Emergency Broadcast…..”

When you prepare your emergency kit don’t neglect the phones. The lightning strikes that have set off fires in Northern California this week are a wake-up call. While phones and telecommunications have been a lifesaver during the Covid panedemic, their role is even more vital during a natural disaster, like a fire or earthquake. They are the fragile link to stay on top of evacuations, to dial 911, and reach contacts.

They are fragile, because if the electricity gets knocked out, many phones will not be able to send or receive messages. In the 2019 fires in California, crucial notifications went unsent, and people in disaster areas were without communications.

This year (2020) there is pending legislation (SB431) and a plan from the state Public Utilities Commission, but neither will solve the issues for this Fall.

Smartphones To Rescue?

If you have a smartphone, and most people do, there are a few steps you can take, but they will not guarantee your safety. If you have recently moved, sign up to receive emergency notifications from the local county and utilities. Then, keep the phone charged and prepare a means to recharge it on the fly, like your car, a household generator, or an inverter cable tied to an electric car battery. Some people recommended keeping a spare older phone with a solar charger in your emergency kit, just for dialing 911.

LandlineS to Rescue?

You might think it prudent to keep a landline alongside your smartphone as redundancy matters. But the danger is that, during the October, 2019 fires, landlines failed too. It turns out that ‘POTS’, Plain Old Telephone Service; i.e., the landline connected to a phone jack, depended on electrical power and used the same transmission as smartphones.

Before the Internet, telephone companies routed calls with paired copper cable, a method that required almost no external power, except at the Central Switching Station. Today, fiber optic lines have replaced many copper telephone cables, even for the landlines.

The problem is compounded because Central Switching Stations, once the bastion for safety and redundancy, now use fiber optics to link between stations. This produces yet another vulnerable communications link during electrical power outages.

Stay Informed!

Under normal, everyday conditions, fiber optics are the backbone for calling and the Internet. They out-perform copper wire because of their lightening speed, capacity, and cost. During the pandemic, telecommunications have been the lifeline that supports the ability to work from home, have classes over the Internet, and engage in Zoom meetups.

Now, when we face a crisis on two fronts, both a natural disaster and a virus pandemic, we need telecommunications more than ever, and we personally need to stay resilient and informed.

How to Find A Local Business

“Looking for out-of-town information….coming up short”

two logos on a page: the yellow pages 'let your fingers do the walking' and now siri, 'let siri do the talking'.
How we search for a business has changed

Dear Ms Smartphone: How should I find a local business?  My family wanted to take a rafting trip together so I went online. Most of the places are about 60 miles from my home.  I searched on Google and picked the one with a good web site and nice pictures of the river. When we got there, I discovered there were other rafting places nearby that were open and had better boats. Unfortunately, they did not come up in my search or at least I don’t remember that they did. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I preferred it when we searched the Yellow Pages. Bernice, S. San Francisco

Dear Bernice:

Do you remember the slogan, “Let your fingers do the walking (through the yellow pages?” Well, today it’s “Let Siri do the talking”! 

Your question is interesting, because indeed, how we search for information and how we discover things in the community have changed so much. As of 2011, nearly 70 % of Americans rarely or never used printed phone directories (the yellow pages), and since then most have gone digital. Even if you liked to use the yellow pages keep in mind that you needed a local directory to search a business even 60 miles away.

Not So Local!

Several years ago there was a scam in digital searches. Say you were looking online for a towing service or locksmith. The address would not pop up and people naively thought they were reaching a local business. Instead, the online connection was to shills far away. Sometimes these nefarious characters took credit card information online and never showed up, or, subbed out the work. 

Since then, search engines like Google, Bing and others have cleaned up their protocols and make it more evident when you do a local search that you are reaching a local business. In terms of your specific search for rafting trips, a couple of things might have gone missing. 

Keywords (and Key Phrases)

First, the businesses that display top-most in the search, like the one you selected, could have bought an ad placement. Here’s how it works:  The business owner bids on keywords and pays a fee to display their name at the top of the list if someone searches choice terms like ‘raft’ or ‘water adventure’ or ‘canoe.’ There’s a tiny icon that says ‘ad’ when the listing displays on your screen, but it certainly easy to overlook it if you are in a hurry.

That said, local businesses do not have to pay to have their listing posted on Google. The listing is free and Google gives them a free web page and map links.  But, without the keywords, the listing may display further down the search page. 

It takes a little bit of digital savvy for a business owner to understand how to get listed and show up on the map. In your case, the other rafting companies may have ignored this, or simply didn’t care. In this link you will find a funny, perhaps sad, discussion between Google business and a locksmith– the locksmith said he just wanted to fix things, he did not know, or care to learn, about posting things on a computer. 

Searching is a 2-way street

The onus to search is a two-way street. To get the full listings you want for a far-away community, the geographic location needed to be specified. Sometimes we turn off the GPS on our devices,  and forget to include the place-name in our searches. We all tend to stop searching after the first few listings display, but the first ones-up are the paid-for-ads.  Other local businesses (e.g. the other rafting businesses) may be several pages deep and require more effort to find.


I would like to think that younger people (the Digital Natives) dig deeper in their search requests and do not stop at the first results. But, maybe not. Do you recall how many businesses in the days of  Yellow Pages called themselves “AAAAAlocksmith, AAAAplumber and AAAArafting? When it comes to finding things, both then and now, a little knowledge helps float the boat.